When lost Los Angeles is your beat, as it is ours, you’re dependent on the stray relics that survive in photographic archives, books and on film.
The buildings and vistas that obsess us were captured at precise moments and specific angles, and while we’re grateful for every scrap of documentation that survives, we also can’t count the times we’ve shaken our fists at the sky and exclaimed, “Damn it, if you had only stood ten feet to the left when you framed that shot!”
For nuts like us, there’s nothing more exciting than news of a new and previously unknown photographic archive, like George Mann’s color views of Bunker Hill or Herman J. Schultheis’ eclectic collection held by LAPL. We raise a virtual glass of frosty Eastside Old Tap Lager to these artists’ holy memories.
Today we add another camera-toting friend to that storied list, the creator of a body of work that we’re just getting to know. Anton Wagner came to Los Angeles in 1932 as a doctoral candidate at the ancient University of Kiel in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. To illustrate his thesis on the influence of the landscape on the life of the young metropolis, he took hundreds of photographs, all recently scanned by the California Historical Society.
As a stranger from the old world with a scientific interest in the place, his neutral eye settled on atypical scenes that no other photographer bothered to capture. And in these beautiful, high-resolution scans, we find a version of depression-era Los Angeles that is fresh and unfamiliar, filling in gaps we didn’t know were there.
We encourage you to explore the Anton Wagner collection and find your own treasures—and to post them in the comments—but here are a few scenes that we found particularly thrilling.
• An unusual side view of the landmark Doria Apartments in the Pico-Union district, whose rooftop sign we were privileged to save from illegal alterations when we spotted the work while giving a true crime bus tour in 20111.
• Angels Flight Railway at her original site beside the Third Street Tunnel, with the funicular partly obscured by a Pacific Electric car and busy work crew. Photographers typically framed the railway in a romantic postcard manner, without obstruction. It’s fascinating to see it as part of the chaotic daily cityscape.
• The storied Art Deco haberdasher Alexander & Oviatt caught at the moment of the liquidation sale which James Oviatt managed to put behind him through some masterful hustles at the bank down the block. His only-in-LA story was featured at our LAVA Sunday Salon with Marc Chevalier. (That odd-looking sidewalk? The black and white rubber blocks whose removal features in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake!)
• A magnificently funky suite of Main Street storefronts on the site of today’s most unfunky police headquarters, among them a carnival sideshow-style reptile display promising a Mongoose vs. Cobra show that could only have been taxidermy.
• A rare view of the short-lived Clifton’s Cafeteria on Hollywood Boulevard (center right).
• There are shockingly empty undeveloped landscapes, like the hills of Silver Lake…
• and Westwood’s Fox Theater looming like a California Mission on the naked plains…
• and the wilds of the unchannelized Arroyo Seco winding through the wee township of Hermon…
• and the Olympic Auditorium flanked by billboards and acres of dirt.
• There’s the gateway to the lost Long Beach amusement village called The Pike, a year-round carnival sideshow whose wholesale destruction is one of the great cultural crimes of California’s redevelopment agencies. We’ll visit this exact site on Richard’s 2016 birthday bus adventure.
• Hungry? Here’s a palatial roadside sandwich joint at Wilshire and Le Doux.
• The undeveloped forest of Olive Hill (now Barnsdall Park), with Aline Barnsdall’s notorious left wing billboards promoting Louis Adamic’s just published Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America…
…while at far left, we catch a rare view of the swine-shaped sign for Kirby’s Pig Stand, a Texas BBQ chain that claims, along with California’s A & W Root Beer, to be America’s first drive-in restaurant.
And all this is just scraping the surface of the gems to be found in the Anton Wagner collection, which we encourage you to explore at your leisure.
We’ll close with a figure found exiting the Pike amusement zone, a handsome little old fellow who seems about to walk up to Wagner and inquire as to his work.
Perhaps the two of them will find that they are countrymen, and retire to a nearby tavern for beer and conversation.
We’ll leave these two to their further adventures in the magnificent young city that was Los Angeles. We can’t go with them, except in our dreams. And so to bed!